Do as many Melburnians cycle to work as Americans?Posted: July 5, 2011
This remarkable map, via Nancy Folbre, shows cycling has a non-trivial share of commuting in at least ten cities in the automobile-centric USA. In Portland OR, 6% of workers commute by bicycle and in Minneapolis 4%. Cycling’s mode share is 3% in Oakland, San Francisco and Seattle, and 2% in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, New Orleans and Honolulu.
How does Melbourne compare with US cities? These ten cities are central counties so there’s no point in comparing them with the entire Melbourne metropolitan area (where bicycle’s share of commutes is 1%). In order to arrive at a fair basis for comparison, it’s necessary to look at bicycle’s share of commutes in Melbourne’s inner city and inner suburbs.
So I’ve summed the Statistical Subdivisions of Inner Melbourne, Moreland, Northern Middle Melbourne and Boroondara. They give me a combined area – which I’ll call central Melbourne – of 313 km2 and a total population of 804,112. That’s a little smaller geographically than Portland, which occupies 376 km2, but it’s a much larger population than Portland’s 566,143.
Cycling’s share of commutes in central Melbourne is 2.81%, which seems pretty good compared to most US cities. However given it’s substantially higher population density, it’s surprising that central Melbourne falls well short of Portland, where 5.81% of commutes are by bicycle. Some allowance has to be made for different methodologies – for example, the Portland figures are 2009 and the Melbourne figures are from the 2006 Census – but that’s not enough to explain a gap this size.
My family and I spent a week in Portland in 2009 and I don’t recall any obvious physical differences that favour cycling relative to Melbourne. In fact at first glance Portland doesn’t look especially promising for bicycles. It’s hillier than central Melbourne, it’s colder and it’s lower density. I doubt that Portland is better endowed than central Melbourne with commuter-friendly cycling infrastructure either.
In some ways Portland actually belies its status as the darling of new urbanism. It’s spaghettied with freeways and in many places doesn’t have footpaths. Even with the new light rail system, public transport has a substantially lower share of travel than in Melbourne.
I think a better explanation for cycling’s high commute share is the special demography of Portland. Aaron Renn puts it this way:
People move to New York City to test their mettle in America’s ultimate arena. They move to Silicon Valley to strike it rich in high tech. But they move to Portland for values and lifestyle; for personal more than professional reasons; to consume as much as produce. People move to Portland to move to Portland.
He cites Joel Kotkin, who reckons “Portland is to today’s generation what San Francisco was to mine: a hip, not too expensive place for young slackers to go”. I like the way the comedy TV show Portlandia put it, describing Portland as the place “where young people go to retire”.
In other words Portland has a population who’re more likely to cycle than even the relatively young residents of central Melbourne. Portland is unique – even compared to what Renn calls faster-growing “talent hubs” for young people like Raleigh and Austin.
So I think central Melbourne stacks up well against US cities, including Portland. We don’t however do very well against certain European cities – where cycling mode shares north of 50% are known – but then our history has more in common with north America.
There’s still no getting away from the fact that bicycle’s share of commutes in US cities and in Melbourne is small. Even so, it’s very likely growing. Moreover, the 6% share in Portland is on a par with public transport’s share of all trips in Adelaide, Canberra and, until the recent completion of new lines, Perth – this isn’t comparing apples with apples, but the key point is these cities take public transport seriously notwithstanding its small share.
One possibility I can’t exclude in the comparison of Melbourne against Portland is the effect of weather at the time the data was collected. The Australian Census is undertaken in winter (this year it will be 9 August), when cycling is least attractive. The American Community Survey used in the US collects data on a rolling year-round program so it’s possible – even likely – the mode use data for Portland was undertaken in more clement weather. If so, I expect Melbourne would look quite good compared to Portland. If not, well, Portland’s winters are diabolical compared to ours.